In Allegheny County Jail, pregnant inmates have been held in solitary confinement for infractions such as having one too many pairs of shoes

By Matt Stroud, Criminal Justice Researcer/Writer, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Photo via The Post Gazette.

Imagine: dozens of pregnant women who are not only serving jail time for crimes they may not have committed, but who are also being held in solitary confinement for petty infractions, and who, in addition, are not being fed necessary prenatal nutrients. It’s difficult to fathom something crueler or more unusual occurring on behalf of any jail in the United States. But that’s exactly what appears to be happening in Allegheny County Jail, the lockup in downtown Pittsburgh.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, along with The Abolitionist Law Center, PA Institutional Law Project, and Reed Smith filed a lawsuit on behalf of five pregnant women who spent as many as 22 days in ACJ’s Disciplinary Housing Unit for transgressions such as storing envelopes in a library book, and possessing three pairs of shoes instead of two. One of the women named in the lawsuit told Rewire that she was placed into the DHU — a euphemism the county uses for solitary confinement — because she kept her physician-prescribed medications in her cell, apparently against the jail’s policy. Once in the hole, she said she felt “like I was going to be in there forever.” When she filed a written grievance with the warden about being placed into solitary, she noted that she was going through a high-risk pregnancy — a detail that one would imagine the jail’s primary overseer might take seriously. A reply was scribbled at the bottom of the form: “If this is a problem don’t come to jail.”

Here’s how it looked on the grievance form:

A spokeswoman declined to provide a statement on behalf of the county, telling the Post-Gazette that the county “does not comment on pending litigation.” But the Post-Gazette does, on occasion, comment on litigation. The grotesqueness of how these women have been treated by the county is evident. And the PG took the implications to their logical next step: “[T]he suit underscores the need to find alternative placements for nonviolent offenders and pregnant inmates whenever possible,” the Pittsburgh newspaper’s editorial board wrote. “Incarceration should be reserved for those most deserving of it and who are physically able to do the time.”

It seems Allegheny County Jail’s administrators have ignored that seemingly obvious guidance. Now that these five women have been brave enough to come forward, perhaps they’ll see the errors in their ways.


(The Pennsylvania criminal justice news that could use a second look.)

Pittsburgh Latinx activist Martín Esquivel-Hernández is being held on immigration charges at an ICE detention center in Youngstown, Ohio. His children, pictured above, hope their father will soon be released. Photo from The Huffington Post.
  • From The Huffington Post: “Mexican Family Torn Apart by ICE and US Attorney’s Office in Pittsburgh, PA”

“Alma Brigido is Martín Esquivel-Hernández’s wife and partner of twelve years. She used to go on long walks with her husband around their Beechview neighborhood. On their walks, the Latinx activists would talk like any married couple does: about their household, their three children, the news of their days, big and small. But on May 1, 2016, Martín was unjustifiably taken from their home by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) after being racially profiled by Mt. Lebanon police at a traffic stop a few weeks prior. Since then, Alma has taken her walks alone, using the time to think. As a parent heavily involved in her small children’s educations, a church member, and activist working with her husband to assess the needs of the Pittsburgh Latinx community, Alma’s life prior to May 1, 2016 had its own unique set of complications that are at once as universal and specific to any family. But after ICE and the US Attorney’s Office chose to tear Alma’s family apart, her balancing act has become exponentially more challenging, the odds increasingly stacked against her.”

“The District Attorney’s Office since April had agreed with the defense that Rollins deserved a new trial and should be released to his pretrial status of house arrest. But Means didn’t rule until Nov. 14, when he denied Rollins a new trial. On Tuesday, Superior Court reversed Means’ decision, citing the agreement between prosecutors and the defense and rebuking Means for the delay. It granted a new trial and ordered Rollins’ release. But now, no new trial will take place. At a 9 a.m. hearing before Means, Assistant District Attorney Mark Gilson, director of the Conviction Review Unit, told the judge that prosecutors were dropping all charges against Rollins. That meant that Rollins, who spent more than 10 years behind bars for a crime that mounting evidence indicated he did not commit, was finally a free man.”

  • From The St. Louis American: “Federal judge settles Jennings jail case, attorneys say $4.7M is ‘highest per diem payout in a debtors’ prison case to date’”

“‘No human being should be kept in a cage because she cannot make a monetary payment. This groundbreaking settlement brings us a big step toward eradicating the scourge of wealth-based human caging that we have allowed to pervade our modern American legal system,’ said Alec Karakatsanis, founder and executive director of Civil Rights Corp, a nonprofit organization dedicated to challenging systemic injustice in the American legal system. ‘While this ruling holds promise for similar cases, impact litigation can only go so far as to achieve racial and economic equity for poor people and black people who have been exploited by cities’ courts, police and jails,’ said Brendan Roediger, from Saint Louis University School of Law Legal Clinics.”

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We are the ACLU’s Pennsylvania affiliate, defending the Constitution and the Bill of Rights through litigation, advocacy, and community education and outreach.